'Stoker' Review: A Warped And Hollow Family Portrait From The Director Of 'Oldboy' [Sundance 2013]

The title Stoker suggests vampirism, as a play on the name of Dracula creator Bram Stoker. But the monsters in this film are purely human — people warped into terrible shapes by neglect and jealousy.

For his English-language debut, Oldboy direcotor Park Chan-Wook chose Stoker, a script by actor Wentworth Miller that revolves around a family suffering the pain of change after a significant death. Evie Stoker and her daughter India barely have a moment to come to terms with the untimely passing of husband/father Michael, when his long-lost brother Charlie shows up. Charlie is so long-lost that the rest of the family barely knew of his existence. But it isn't long before he has insinuated himself into the broken household, and is toying with the affections of lonely Evie and rapidly maturing India.

There's an influence from Hitchcock – the imposition of a long-lost Uncle Charlie can't help but conjure thoughts of Shadow of a Doubt — but Stoker doesn't feel like a Hitchcock film at all. Unfortunately, it doesn't feel much like a classic Park film, either. There's lush cinematography to spare, and a strikingly vivid color palette, yes. As a story or character portrait, however, Stoker is resoundingly hollow.

Visually, Park's film is mesmerizing, all restless camera, carefully coordinated color, and oblique angles. As the camera floats through the gorgeous sets of the Stoker home, guided by Park's regular cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, editor Nicolas De Toth cross-cuts between "live" moments, flashbacks, and memory.  If there was a story to tell, the visual ideas enacted here by Park & Co might be a beautiful way to tell it.

But Stoker is appallingly empty, relying on overwrought conversations and endless shots of a silently brooding India. As she broods, Charlie creeps, and Evie preens and sulks. Those actions represent most of the emotional content of the film. Latent conflict abounds — Evie resents the extinguished spark of her marriage, and resents India for becoming the apple of her father's eye. India resents her useless, pouting mother, and is dealing with the broad rigors of puberty to boot. Telling you what Charlie resents would be to spoil what little surprise the film has.

The film flirts with transgression by strongly developing a sexual triangle between the three leads. But it's all posturing, and so overplayed that it comes off as weird and silly rather than ominous. Sexy? Forget about it. A relatively explicit solo adventure for India, cross-cut with a bit of violence, should be the point where her development into a proper Stoker family monster is finalized. Instead of being awed or seduced by her adult emergence, I just laughed.

As India, Mia Wasikowska has a commanding stare and imposing scowl. Yet she can't often crawl out from under Park's heavy hand, which frequently works to smother rather than support any emotion Wasikowska conveys. Park never lets up; Stoker is style heaped on style, and it's a rare moment where anything has room to breathe. Wasikowska's physical performance is quite good, but the film doesn't seem to care. As Evie and Charlie, Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode face a similar problem, but fortunately most of what they have to do is lean on furniture and stare.

As concepts, the conflicts built into Stoker are fertile and powerful, but there's a wild element too many. India has a special power (super-sensitive sight and hearing) which motivates expository voiceover dialogue that India "overhears." Layer that with Park's insistent visual sense and a total lack of subtlety with dialogue and theme, and the film collapses under all the weight. There might be an audience that will love Stoker as an ironic, campy freakout, but not me. I enjoyed looking at it — watching the film with Clint Mansell's score isolated might be quite nice — but I could never for a moment accept it on its own terms.

/Film Rating: 3 out of 10